Thursday, April 20, 2006

RSS is driving me crazy

This RSS stuff is driving me crazy. I have been struggling to get my last 5 or 6 posts listed on the Blogging Tories aggregator without success. After hours of troubleshooting, I've got my fingers crossed that this one will actually list. Wish me luck.

Apparently, the source of the problem is that my RSS feed on Feedburner has been polluted by extraneous code inserted by Microsoft Word. Typically, I compose my posts in Word and copy the text into Blogger. Posts created this way no longer seem to validate on Feedburner and consequently don't show up in my RSS feed, although I didn't have any problem with this in the past.

You can still use Word to compose your posts in Blogger if you use a special tool called Blogger for Word. This tool strips out the offending XML code as well as illegal characters such as smart quotes. Check it out if you are experiencing similar problems or see wacky text in your RSS feed.

In the meantime, check out a few of my more recent posts which may have escaped your notice. As much as I like to write, it is also nice to have an audience.

Telling the government what to do

For what it's worth, I submitted my opinions on the 2006-2007 budget last night. I believe the deadline has been extended another 24 hours, which means to today, or so the link said last night.

Here is my submission:

To start, I agree with the basic thrust of the government’s priorities outlined in the last election, particularly its promises:

· To reduce the GST;
· To put money into the hands of parents rather than institutions to help with childcare costs; and
· To work with the provinces to establish a wait time guarantee for patients.

In my view, the most important economic challenge over the course of the new government’s term is to deal with Canada’s lagging productivity growth. In this regard, a number of factors need to be addressed.

· First, it is critically important that the Canadian business tax system be internationally competitive, with the overall tax burden appropriate to the level of public services and other government benefits accorded to business. Moreover, we need a tax system that does not skew investment incentives such that financial resources are misdirected into otherwise uncompetitive industries.

In light of this, any proposed tax expenditures (which should be generally eschewed) should be broadly available and not directed at specific industries.

The government should consider measures such as moderately accelerated write-offs for capital investment to encourage investment in new technologies, as well as training incentives for firms and individuals in order to enhance the skills of working Canadians.

Similarly, the personal income tax system must be competitive relative to the bundle of government services and other public benefits that Canadians receive.

Moreover, the various federal and provincial tax benefits must be better integrated to avoid perverse situations where marginal tax rates can reach punitive levels as taxable income levels increase from relatively low levels.

To improve fairness, we should consider assessing income tax on a family basis to remove the penalty that single-income families and many two, but unequal, income families pay relative to families with two similar incomes.

· Second, we must enhance the effectiveness of government, given its large share of overall economic activity, by focussing its efforts on tasks which it does well and exiting areas where its contribution is questionable. It is my suspicion that the underperformance of the public sector has had a major negative impact on Canada’s productivity performance, impeding the rise in living standards that we might otherwise expect.

Government simply must deliver better value for the taxes we pay. It cannot be insulated from the pressures the rest of us face to continuously improve our efficiency and the quality of our work. Clearly, high profile failures, such as the gun registry or the HRDC boondoggle, greatly detract from the effectiveness of government in the absence of any mechanism to quickly modify them or shut them down should they go off the rails.

On the question of fiscal imbalance, there is growing awareness of the mismatch of tax revenues and responsibilities at different levels of government. This issue needs to be addressed and I think the government is on the right track in insisting that it will stick to its jurisdiction and defer to the provinces in dealing with theirs. Obviously, a way of addressing the revenue mismatch needs to be negotiated.

My preference would be for the federal government to vacate the tax space in order for the provinces to directly raise the funds they need to deliver the programs in their jurisdictions. This restores accountability to the level of government that collects the tax and provides the service.

The system of equalization must be transparent and designed to reward success, not failure. In this regard, I feel it is appropriate that if, for example, the offshore oil industry in Atlantic Canada generates new wealth and sources of tax revenue in the region that the region retain the bulk of the benefits for a reasonable period of time rather than be forced to give up the equalization payments it receives on a one-for-one basis. That is a huge disincentive for the region to reduce its dependency on federal equalization payments.

Conversely, since equalization is typically described as a hand up and not a hand out, Canada’s regions must bear some of the risk if their economic development policies render them uncompetitive and drive investment away. I would like to see some time limit put on equalization payments, barring unanticipated events outside their control, to help focus citizens and their governments on finding real solutions rather than continuing to depend on handouts from the federal government.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

True conservatives

William Gairdner makes the provocative claim that:

... all true conservatives (whether or not they believe in God) are "social" in the sense that they accept the reality that we share in a common humanity and therefore have an obligation wherever possible to place the good of all – which is the good of society – before our own individual desires. So in this sense, all conservatives are social. Indeed, there is no such thing as a non-social, or a merely fiscal conservative. The latter is a really a person with strong business and free market interests who doesn’t mind government control by way of lowering taxes and laws that favour business, but who is likely a strict libertarian in personal and sexual matters (which he will define as private and having nothing to do with society).


So for me, at least, it comes to this: all true conservatives, past and present (and I am not using political-party language here) are social because they accept that the good of all must be prior to their own individual desires (and they accept this truth whether they like it or not). So-called "fiscal" conservatives are libertarians in hiding because they support coercive laws that favour commerce, but resist all laws in matters they consider private. The term "social" conservative is thus redundant.

If I was to reduce my political philosophy to a short epithet, I would call myself a "fiscal" conservative or "libertarian" conservative. Consequently, I take issue with the notion that a true conservative is a "social" conservative and that I am not a conservative at all.

In the economic realm, we can thank Adam Smith for his illustrative metaphor of how the invisible hand guides us to economically efficient outcomes. Smith's genius was in recognizing that markets allocate resources to their most efficient use, to the ultimate benefit of society as a whole. For the most part, efforts to interfere with this process are misguided and typically result in less desirable economic outcomes. Consequently, we let individuals make their own decisions regarding what to buy, where to work, in what to invest, etc. Individually, we are responsible for the decisions we make. If we make bad decisions, we adapt. That is how the system works. And it works very well.

Why should it be any different in the social realm? If we have confidence in people to make their own economic decisions, how can we turn around and make their "moral" decisions for them? If some had had their way in the 1950s, Elvis Presley would have been banned. Why should anyone have the right to make that decision? Of course, that won't stop people from trying, but we should rightfully be sceptical of their authority if they should try.

Society is not static. It is a dynamic system. Over time, some forms of social organization will prove to be more adaptable and effective in an evolving environment than others. But it is only through experimentation that the most successful social forms will emerge. In my opinion it is far better to lead by example than to outlaw activities with which one might disagree. Some people will undoubtedly make bad decisions. They will adapt, and if they don’t, others will see the errors of their ways. Society is far more resilient than people give it credit. We must trust our citizens to do what is in their best interests and those of their loved ones.

Ultimately, politics is about the kind of society we desire. Social outcomes concern us all. The difference between a "social" conservative and a "libertarian" conservative is that the "libertarian" conservative extends the faith we have in individuals to make decisions in their best economic interest to the social realm.

While the "social" conservative would impose their morality in an attempt to socially engineer their preferred outcome, there is little difference in method with "liberal" social-engineering schemes which he typically reacts against. In contrast, the "libertarian" conservative eschews such repression and welcomes free and open competition among social forms in the belief that, as in the economic realm, society will converge toward a socially desirable outcome if our citizens are free to choose what is in their best interests.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bringing government to the people

The Harper government is bringing government to the people. With today's launch of the Online Pre-Budget Consultations for Budget 2006 and Beyond, budget-making is no longer the preserve of the lobbyist elites. You can submit your views too.

Canadians of all backgrounds are invited to help the CPC government craft its first budget. The deadline for submissions is April 19, 2006.

While I have had the past good fortune to appear before the Standing Committee on Finance in past pre-budget consultations on behalf of a previous employer, this time I will be telling the government what is important to me.

Among other things, I will tell the Harper government how important it is to restore accountability to government. I will tell them how high taxes and expensive, poorly adminstered and ineffective government programs undermine our living standards. I will encourage them to deliver on their promise to immediately cut the GST by 1 percentage point, and, if there is room, to go all the way to 5% instead of adopting the Liberal/Toronto Star income tax cuts.

This time your government is listening. Make sure you do not miss this opportunity to speak.

Overpowered by hype

I'm playing the Arctic Monkeys on my iPod and just registered and uploaded my first video on YouTube. Although I find the Arctic Monkeys interesting, there is no way the poor band can ever live up to its hype.

On the other hand, YouTube is totally cool. Press play and check it out.